Shakespeare 1 Molière 0: 'Linguistic treason' as France prepares to accept English teaching for university sciences

Higher education minister Geneviève Fioraso aims to make future French scientists better able to use international language of scientific research


The French language will finally concede defeat in its 1,000 years old war with English on the floor of the French parliament tomorrow.

The French minister for higher education, Geneviève Fioraso, will, according to her critics, propose the capitulation of the "language of Molière" before the all-conquering "language of Shakespeare".

Ms Fioraso will table a draft law that will allow the teaching of some scientific courses in French universities in the English language. The intention is to allow France to attract the best foreign students and make future generations of French scientists better able to speak, and write, the international language of scientific research.

Ms Fioraso's proposal has ignited a passionate debate in France, which has long tried to resist the linguistic imperialism of English. The Académie Française, which had been codifying and defending the French language since the 17th century, accused Ms Fioraso of linguistic treason. She was, the academy said, "favouring the marginalisation of our language".

Bernard Pivot, the veteran host of literary programmes on French television, said: "If we allow English to infiltrate our universities and become the sole means of describing science and the modern world… French will become a banal language, or worse, a dead one."

Ms Fioraso's supporters - including many senior French academics - say that her bill is an overdue recognition of reality. French is the eighth most spoken language in the world. English is the second most spoken, behind Chinese, but is globally recognised as the language of science.

In a letter in Le Monde, 12 leading scientific academics said: "The linguistic bunkerisation of our country…  risks handicapping our young people, who have no need of further obstacles to international recognition".

Universities in Germany, the Netherlands and Scandinavia already offer much of their scientific teaching in English, the minister points out. If France fails to come in line, the best undergraduate and graduate students from Asia will be lost to France, and French scientists will be unable to talk the international language of science.

Ms Fioraso also accuses her critics, on both the right wing and left, of "gross hypocrisy". She points out that the elite institutions of higher education in France, the business schools and more scientific "grandes écoles" started offering courses in English years ago. Her proposal is part of a wider plan to upgrade the underfunded and unloved French university system and close the gap with the institutions which have traditionally trained the French governing elite.

The centre-left newspaper, Libération, entered the debate on her side yesterday, by publishing its entire front page in English. "Teaching in English. Let's do it" said the main headline.

Underneath, the newspaper carried a link to another story which was headlined, also in English: "Sex and condoms. The best is yet to come."

This referred to a story about a competition launched by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in the US to invent a form of condom which would be easier to use and would give more sexual pleasure. Whether this counts as "scientific research" is unclear.

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